Stephen Rosenbaum is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. He received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Illinois. In his 1986 piece, “How to Be Dead and Not Care: A Defense of Epicurus,” he rejects the view that death is bad for the person that dies, undertaking a systematic defense of the Epicurean position.[i] As we have seen, while we ordinarily think that death is bad for the person that dies, Epicurus argued that this is mistaken. And, since fear of something that is not bad is groundless, it is irrational to fear death.
Rosenbaum begins by differentiating between: 1) dying—the process that leads to death; 2) death—the time at which a person becomes dead; and 3) being dead—the state after death. The Epicurean argument does not deny that dying or death can be bad, but argues that being dead cannot be bad for the one who is dead. Just as a totally deaf person cannot experience a Mozart symphony, a dead person cannot have positive or negative experiences. The purpose of Epicurus’ argument, according to Rosenbaum, was to help us achieve inner peace and to free us from unnecessary fear and worry. It also was a meant to revise common sense in light of philosophical reflection. Rosenbaum reconstructs that argument as follows:
- A state of affairs is bad for a person P only if they can experience it; thus
- P’s being dead is bad for P only if it is a state P can experience;
- P can experience a state of affairs only if it begins before P’s death;
- P’s being dead is not a state of affairs that begins before P’s death; thus
- P’s being dead is not a state of affairs that P can experience; thus P’s being dead is not bad for P.
Since B and E are logical deductions, only A, C, and D are premises. Since D is true by definition, only premises A and C are possibly controversial, but Rosenbaum argues that both stand up to critical scrutiny. The only way to attack the argument then is if it misses the entire point. Perhaps death is bad because we anticipate not having experiences, opportunities, and satisfactions. Rosenbaum responds that such anticipations occur only while we are alive; they cannot be experienced after we are dead. That is why anticipating death is not like anticipating going to the dentist. In the latter both the anticipation and the actual experience of the dental chair are bad, while in the former there is only the anticipation. In fact Epicurus thought the anticipation pointless, since there would be no badness after death. But if Epicurus’ argument is sound, why do many fear death?
Lucretius offered an explanation. Since we have a hard time thinking of ourselves as separate from our bodies, we think that bad things happening to our bodies are happening to us. We think of the decaying body as somehow us, but it is not. Another possible explanation is that we believe death takes us to some other realm that will be highly unpleasant. But Epicurus can apply a salve to our concerns—being dead is nothing to the dead person.
Summary – The Epicurean argument that death is not bad and nothing to fear is sound. Being dead is not bad for the dead person.
[i] Stephen Rosenbaum, “How to Be Dead and Not Care: A Defense of Epicurus,” American Philosophical Quarterly 23 no. 2 (April 1986).